Introduction to Class
Although 100% online and asynchronous isn’t the ideal way to have a class, I believe we can mimic the intellectual environment with online options. The first thing to understand, though, is that you have BOTH a class website and a Canvas page. In order to make it easier to plan your reading habits, I’m separating the readings into a Monday/Wednesday schedule, which was the original schedule before this course went online. I’ll open up the course notes weekly (usually Sunday nights), and you should follow along with the syllabus to keep up with the reading. If you choose not to read, you will fail.
Why both? Why a website AND a Canvas page. I promise you I’m not doing this to confuse you. You are the immediate audience, but I have colleagues elsewhere who benefit from this resource–and they should thank me more often! The class website has notes for the readings and other topics that you can access from anywhere. Only twice in 16 years has there been a situation where my class website wasn’t available. Last year, during the switch from “uncc.edu” to “charlotte.edu,” we had a couple days where the website was down. A decade ago, there was a fire in the server room, which shut down these websites. Therefore, I’m pretty confident in this website’s reliability. Canvas (and the previous class management systems) crashes a few times a semester. It might not “crash,” but there are glitches. All your work will go through Canvas–including the Tests and Exams. Readings that aren’t in the assigned books will also be on Canvas. The course notes are all on this website.
Today we’re going to get acquainted with the course materials and requirements. I’m hoping to use this webpage and Canvas for all class needs–notes, readings not in the books, tests, course policies, etc.
- Read the course syllabus–Read the entire thing
- LBST 2213 General Education Requirement
- You’ll notice this course falls under “Ethical Issues and Cultural Critique”
- HTAS 2100 Minor
- Technical/Professional Minor
- Liberal Studies: What’s liberal about it?
- Why Science Fiction in a class on science and technology? (You can stop at “Futurism”)
Remember, this class isn’t trying to teach you science and engineering; instead, the goal is to teach about science and technology, focusing on social-cultural aspects.
Simply put, studying culture. Having a cultural studies lens means one looks at ideas, values, movements, and society in general as being mediated be prevailing characteristics of a group (often on a large scale). This approach attempts to find (or read) the meanings of artifacts (ideas, technologies, and texts—including literature, film, music, etc.) as products of the cultures from which they come.
I often use the example of culturally (or socially) constructed technologies and sciences. There’s a social demand for new science and technology. Of course, initial reasons for researching a science or developing a technology can change based on how consumers use the technologies in ways not intended by inventors. Normally, though, there’s a demand that gets fulfilled. For instance, humans like to communicate over long distances; therefore, the telegraph, telephone, and radio were invented. Humans want individual, instant communication; therefore, the cell phone was developed. This next one might seem too simplistic, but it follows the above pattern perfectly: people want to live, live longer, and live well, so medicine—vaccines, pain killers, fever reducers, etc.–is developed.
No artifact or idea is created in a vacuum—meaning, devoid of external influence. Scientists, engineers, authors and the materials they create are products of the characteristics of their culture, which includes the culture’s moment in time. Although we can’t identify universally essential features of each individual, we can argue (and support) what appear to be prevailing values of a culture. Unlike analysis that aims to “unlock” meaning based on an individual’s life (e.g. psychoanalysis), a cultural studies perspective interprets individual and group actions as primarily influenced by culture. People don’t like to hear this because it emphasizes that we’re really just herd animals. [Here’s what psychology tells us. Look familiar?–that’s a picture of a herd of people in line for Black Friday shopping.]
Although there are other types of interpretations of science fiction (and fiction in general), we’ll be privileging a social science fiction approach. One thing to remember is that, in the Humanities, we don’t consider any one discipline having THE answer. Instead, we arrive at answers based on the questions we ask, which are mediated by our disciplinary epistemologies. Cultural Studies is inherently interdisciplinary because it borrows methods of interpretation from a variety of disciplines: History, Sociology, Philosophy, Anthropology, and others. In this class, when we focus on science fiction (which falls under the broad category speculative fiction), we’ll mostly consider it from historical and cultural perspectives—time period and society, respectively.
The (Sub)Cultural Study of Science and Technology
This class is going to take a different approach to science and technology. Instead of explaining how something is constructed or applied, we’re going to consider the value humans place on science and technology. We should view scientific fields as a variety of subcultures. Although biologists, chemists, physicists, etc. share the assumption that the scientific method is the appropriate way to produce knowledge, they focus on different aspects of the natural world (or universe).
Within those disciplines, members speak to each other through, essentially, their own language. Not only do they share a technical slang (jargon), they share assumptions of knowledge. We call these communication systems connecting members of a discipline discourse communities. It is difficult for an outsider to enter the conversation (or understand what he or she is reading or hearing) because discourse communities tend to speak to themselves—to other members within the discourse community. Often the non-scientific/technical audience consumes knowledge of the field through a filter. Perhaps a journalist or discourse community member conveys knowledge in general terms, picking and choosing the details to provide.
Another important consideration for us is how the expert’s authority is used to convince a lay audience that doesn’t fully understand the details of a science the way a member of the discipline would. Moving forward, we’ll read about scientific and technological accounts and try to identify assumptions that guide scientists and engineers to particular conclusions. Such an activity is the basis for critical thinking—don’t just read for information; read to discover the meaning and reasons behind expert conclusions. This doesn’t necessarily mean debunk or criticize the experts; instead, it means analyzing their epistemology, which is discipline specific.
Vocabulary for Discussing Culture
These are important terms to know when talking about culture and communication. Sometimes we (English professors) use different terms interchangeably, but the definitions below are good for our purposes in this class. They might not be the exact definitions your fields adhere to, but, knowing there are slight differences, allows you to (re)consider how a person from a certain discipline comes to knowledge.
- Ideology: prevailing cultural/institutional attitudes, beliefs, norms, attributes, practices, and myths that are said to drive a society. Members of a culture (or subculture) aren’t devoid of ideology. Take a look at the OED Online’s 1st and 4th definitions.
- Hegemony: the ways or results of a dominant group’s (the hegemon) influence over other groups in a society or region. The dominant group dictates, consciously or unconsciously, how society is structured and how other groups must “buy into” the structure. For example, the former Soviet Union was the hegemonic power influencing the communist countries of Eastern Europe during the Cold War.
- Systemic:* (adjective) pertaining to an entire system, institution, or object; something ‘systemic’ cannot be removed from the system.
- Rhetoric: the ability to perceive the available means of persuasion (Aristotle), or the ways in which meanings are conveyed.
- Epistemology: “a branch of philosophy that investigates the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge.”
- Genre: literary or other textual products “with certain conventions and patterns that, through repetition, have become so familiar that [audiences] expect similar elements in the works of the same type” (Dick, p. 112).
- Illusion: “false or misleading representation of reality.”
- Privilege: (as a verb) to grant something a special right or status; to value something over another. An economist privileges a worldview that believes individuals make decisions based on maximizing self interest.
- Ambiguity: “doubtfulness or uncertainty of meaning or intention.”
The last word, ambiguity, is extremely important for this type of class. Unlike assumptions of other disciplines, we’re not searching for material to plug into an equation. Most answers will be contextual—they will depend on the situation. Not all ideas are black and white, but we often absorb information from speakers that, rhetorically, present ideas as black and white. You should be ready to leave class with more questions than answers. That doesn’t mean you leave saying, “what was that all about?” Instead, you leave being able to ask smarter questions. A more informed person and one able to deal with ambiguity will be able to ask smarter questions. Remember what Voltaire said:
Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd. (Voltaire)
*Systemic–This term has been used quite a bit to explain the causes of social unrest in the United States. Racism (as well as sexism) is said to be “systemic” because it’s part of the system. The United States was founded on white male supremacist ideals: slavery, misogyny, etc. If that sentence above disturbs you, good. We can no longer bury our heads in the sand and pretend the legacy of slavery and disenfranchisement (of many groups) hasn’t affected the United States today. I think we’d agree that things are “better,” but the lies that we’ve reached full equality or a “color blind” society still persist. Unlearn.
Things We Most Likely Can’t Disagree About
We carry on our lives without truly understanding the forces at work—social, scientific, and technological. When we use smart phones, computers, cars, etc., we don’t have to understand the science or engineering behind how they work. Of course, some of us do but only if one is in a technical discipline or just really curious and has the time to “dissect” the black boxes of various technologies.
I will do my best to explain why science fiction—stories created to entertain and provoke thinking—is as important to understanding the role of science and technology in our world as instruction on sciences and technologies. This class is split in half between readings about science & technology and science fiction. Of course, that should be obvious when you look at the course calendar on the syllabus.
Every week, you’ll have prompts that should inspire you to respond (in at least 250 words) to the reading from that week. All of these will be on Canvas and due Fridays by 11:00 pm—not midnight but 11:00 pm. You are responsible for doing these prompts AND making sure your response made it to Canvas, so, after submitting, check to make sure it’s there. Again, that is your responsibility. To ensure you don’t suffer from a Canvas glitch, type these responses up in a word processor (MS Word, Google Docs, etc.) and then copy + paste the response into the Canvas text box, which also provides a word count.
What you should do right now is set a weekly reminder for Thursday—giving yourself a day ahead—that alerts you a weekly reflection is due. Yes, they’re due Friday at 11:00 pm, but set the reminder for Thursday. I will not allow make ups. If you email me because you forgot, here’s my response (so you have it in advance):
- Did you set the weekly reminder I asked you to on 8/22—the first day of class? I will not reopen the weekly prompts. I also don’t accept these responses via email.
Your first prompt is to provide some information about yourself. I already added some information about myself. Because of drop-add still being open, I’m giving you until 9/02 to finish this first one. You’ll still have week #2’s prompt due on 9/02. These will be due weekly and are worth 30% of your grade. Not doing them will hurt your grade. Set that reminder now.
Isaac Asimov’s “Cult of Ignorance”
I have notes and questions for further thought on this 42-year-old article that’s still relevant today. Place head over to the “Cult of Ignorance” webpage for the discussion.
For Next “Class” (8/24)
Make sure you get the books and get onto Canvas to post a little bit about yourself—this is a requirement. You’ve already read the short Isaac Asimov article “Cult of Ignorance,” so I know you know how to use Canvas. Make sure you can access our textbooks, and start reading the Prefaces and Ch. 1 in Collins & Pinch. The Golem: What You Should Know about Science. 2nd Ed.